I once heard someone remark that if you are needing a character in your writing to die, make sure that character earns it. The implication being not that the character deserves to die, but it is real enough there is some point to the death. Without investment, a dead character is just a prop. In “Gravity”, Director/writer Alfonso Cuarón and his brother Jonás use just that sort of prop to great effect.
Seeing the advertisements for “Gravity” it is clear that some kind of event results in two astronauts (played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) are in space when a disaster forces them to survive in orbit without their ship. There is no way to get audiences in to see that sort of movie without showing some of the destruction in the ads, and doing so, it won’t be any surprise for the audience.
Thankfully, the Cuarón brothers don’t force the audience to wait through an extended development. After a very brief wait, during which they establish that Mission Specialist Ryan Stone (Bullock) is on her first flight and is not particularly good at being an astronaut and Matt Kowalski (Clooney) is a veteran on his last space flight, the action begins.
Three of Explorer’s crew of five are outside the ship Stone attached to the arm attaching her experiment to the Hubble space telescope. Kowalski is using a jet pack and attempting to set a spacewalk record while fishing for stories to tell to lengthen his flight time. Climbing around the outside of Explorer, Shariff is providing support and background antics. the control center radios that a Russian satellite has been struck by a missile.
The initial debris is in a different orbit than the Explorer and Houston does not see any danger. What they failed to consider is the proximity of other satellites to the destroyed Russian satellite. The initial debris has caused a chain reaction, destroying nearby communication satellites and sending their debris toward the Explorer.
Aborting the mission, Kowalski orders Stone to stop working and detach from the Hubble so she can be pulled back into Explorer. Stone delays until she can finish her work and close up the panels. Before the arm can return her to the bay, Shariff is hit and goes silent. Now panicking, Stone requests faster transport back and Kowalski uses the jet pack to move to her but doesn’t make it before the main debris field severs the arm and sends Stone spinning off into space.
Calling after her, Kowalski tells Stone to detach from the arm. Eventually she manages to release from the spinning arm but finds herself far away from Kowalski and the damaged Explorer. Feeling completely adrift and alone, Stone is running low on oxygen when Kowalski and his jet pack arrive to pull her back to Explorer.
Having completely lost contact with control, Kowalski continues to report regularly “in the blind”, in case Houston can hear him. He reports that the two of them are heading back to Explorer. He also has Stone set her timer to 90 minutes, the amount of time he estimates it will take them to orbit back to the debris field.
Approaching Explorer, they see the extent of the devastation. Once they confirm that they are the only survivors, they plan to make their way to the ISS where a Russian Soyuz craft can provide them a way back to Earth. Along the way, Kowalski’s disarming confidence eventually pries secrets about her life from Ryan. As they come closer to the space station, Kowalski observes that one Soyuz is missing and the other has already deployed its chute, making it useless as a rescue craft. This leaves the Chinese station their only hope, but Stone is out of oxygen and Kowalski is out of fuel for his jet pack. They have to board the ISS first without the benefit of jets to guide them in.
Gravity is a stunning movie, with a simple but arguably powerful story. All of the character development is reserved for Ryan Stone. Other characters are merely props. Even Kowalski is more of a fully developed mentor and guide with no development. So much so that I wouldn’t have been surprised if the entire film was a dream sequence. Thankfully that was not the case. The overall result is more than any of the minor flaws that might cause some to dislike this film.